Matt and Debbie Cowens in Mansfield with Monsters: The Untold Stories of a New Zealand Icon have seen beyond the Mansfield of society ladies in conferences, beyond the New Zealand patriots, beyond those who read her work because of what Virginia Woolf said about her. They show a deep insight into a darker side of her psyche and work not found in too many other places. The stories in this collection are purported to be the correct versions of some of the most famous stories of Mansfield, before they were censored.
I have read and posted on all of the short stories of Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) that can be found online. My knowledge of the life of Katherine Mansfield mainly comes from the magisterial biography by Kathleen Jones, Katherine Mansfield-The Story Teller. In their very interesting and plausible introduction the Cowens tell us that Mansfield had a strong interest in occult matters. She was acquainted with Aleister Crowley (occultists will not like this but I think much of the occult practices and beliefs in the English speaking world found today and for sure during the life of Mansfield, can be traced to the writings of Crowley.) The introduction of the Cowens tells us more about her relationship with Crowley and other occult figures than Jones does (Jones probably left them out as these are speculative conjectures at least in part). I was very interested to learn that in her travels in Europe she often stopped at occult pilgrimage places. If you study her relationships with men she seems to have a pattern of involvement with Guru like men. If you wanted to you could probably trace this in part back to her relationship with her very powerful and dominating father.
Seances, mystics, Eastern Europeans cult leaders, spirit readings and such were all the rage in Mansfield's time in England and Europe (1903 to 1933). It is perfectly credible to see Mansfield as having a deep interest in such things. She was, however,nobody's fool so I will let the scholars ponder the question if they like but my Katherine Mansfield was knowledgeable about the occult and may have turned to it as she sensed her early death was approaching.
The stories in Mansfield with Monsters: The Untold Stories of a New Zealand Icon are brilliant, quite wonderful retellings of the most famous of Mansfield's short stories as if they were tales from the dark side. They are so well done that they do feel just like she wrote them. There are seventeen stories in this collection. I really liked every one. Some are laugh out loud funny and some are beautiful. Mansfield's stories are often about lonely left out people and these stories capture that. I will post a bit on seven of the stories so you can get a feel for the collection and will then make a few concluding remarks. I will also include a link to the publishers web page on the book where you can learn a lot more about it, read comments from well known critics on it and see pictures of the authors as well as a well done video. You can also download a sample of the work.
"Mrs Brill" ("Miss Brill" is the most read of Mansfield's stories-I can sort of tell based on visits to my web pages on her work which of her stories is being read-and taught-anywhere in the world) is a hilarious retelling of a classic story. In the much loved original, Miss Brill takes her fox wrap with her to the park and observes the people around her and talks to the fox head about them. She sees herself as above the to her dull and mundane people in the park. Then one day something happens that breaks her heart. This story is about Mrs Brill, the original Brill had as far as we know no men in her life ever, is similar but ever so different. Mr Brill is basically dead but she is able to reanimate him twice a year and she always takes him to the park to talk to about the people they see. The ending of this story is both totally funny, works perfectly as a tale of revenge and is quite logical. I will leave it untold.
"The Fly" (some consider this her most "existential story"-older men as a general rule do not come off well in her stories-Daddy issues?) starts out very much like the original. An older man is allowed out on his own only once and a while by his very protective family. He often goes to visit his old boss, another older man. The boss has been morose and sad since his son died in a war. In Mansfield's time, (her beloved brother died in WWI) death of young men hung heavy in the air. What is so great about this story is how we gradually learn the son died in a war against alien invaders. We have to figure out for ourselves what happened. I loved this story and I am not sure, blasphemy here, that I did not prefer it to the original.
Everybody likes "The Garden Party", Mansfield's great story about social classes and a young girl's first immersion into the "real world". Some see it as retelling of the Orpheus myth and I find this credible. The story is set inside the walled compound of an affluent family. Outside of the walls are the homes of the poor, seen as less than fully human by the girl's high society money. There is a big change in this story, weird insect like creatures lurk out side the walls and we feel the decay and sadness in the poor. The story, this one and the original, both let us see the eyes of the girl begin to open. This was a really fun story.
The Cowens' version of "The Young Girl" is just toooo weird for words. I think Mansfield would have loved this one. One of the things I like about the stories of the Cowens' is that they do not explain things, they just let the actions and words in the story do their work. I will say is that of alien leaches invaded New Zealand in 1905 or so this story captures it. This is a really wonderful story. Like the others, it is great fun to read.
"A Bank Holiday" is an impressionistic story seemingly set in small town New Zealand on a Bank Holiday (Mansfield's father was chairmen of The Bank of New Zealand). The new version and the old one both give us a good look at what happens during a holiday festival. I loved these lines from the Covens' story:
"He thinks of Egypt, of the risen dead he fought in his youth. He thinks of the great walking gods of Africa, taller than mountains, which drove so many of his companions to madness. He remembers the ecstasy cults of Calcutta who tore themselves to pieces in moments of religious fervour. He hears the Music too, and knows it. It is the cold piping of the deepest recesses of the night, of the place beyond the stars where only hunger reigns. He knows this tide cannot be stopped, cannot be fought. He turns and flees, praying that he might survive the coming terror. Praying that the world will survive."I will just say the bank holiday does not end well.
"The Daughters of the Lizard Colonel" is one of Mansfield's post popular stories. It shows how three adult daughters of a retired colonel are kept in kind of a perpetual state of childhood by its domination. Now imagine the colonel is a lizard creature trying to pass as human and you have a small idea of how great the remade version of this story is.
"The Doll's House" is normally described as a story about class distinctions in rural New Zealand early 20th century. The rich and the poor go to school together but there are lots of class lines. One girl gets a faboulos doll house as a gift and the poorest lowest down family in the community is not allowed to have their daugters view it. You will like the new ending of this story.
There are ten more stories in the collection so I think the Cowens have given solid value.
This is not just a collection of short stories. The whole thing is a really interesting work of art. The introduction makes the stories plausible and there are some very interesting photographs.
I think these stories can be enjoyed by those not into Mansfield but will really be relished by Mansfield devotees like myself (if they can avoid being peeved over the idea behind the stories). Mansfield had kind of a warped sensbility and I think she would have liked these stories and I am sure John Middleton Murry would have demanded royalties!
For a lot more information on Mansfield with Monsters: The Untold Stories of a New Zealand Icon go to the web page of the publisher, Steampress
I will be posting an incredible retelling of "The Life of Ma Parker" on my blog in a few days.
Mansfield with Monsters: The Untold Stories of a New Zealand Icon by Matt and Debbie Cowens is a totally fun, wonderfully written and very perceptive collection of stories. You can tell the Cowens loved writing these stories and I loved reading them